Growing and running a business at the highest level takes a wide variety of skills, many of which aren’t taught in a classroom. Here are 6 takeaways from business leaders who have used all manner of routes and abilities to rise to the top of their fields.
1. Don’t Wait for Someone Else to Create a Solution
Howard Schultz: CEO, Starbucks
The first member of his family to go to college, Howard Schultz’s introduction to the workforce was selling Xerox word processors. While he excelled at the job, he never developed a passion for it. So he headed to Perstorp, a Swedish company looking to break into the American market. During a business trip to Milan, Schultz first realized how popular coffee bars were in the city, so he pushed the owners of Starbucks (a client of Perstorp at the time) to add espresso to their menu. When they refused, Schultz opened his own coffee shop, called Il Giornale, with the aid of Seattle investors. He opened three stores within the year, and then proceeded to buy Starbucks for $3.8 million in 1988. The business launched into aggressive-expansion mode, and the result is the Starbucks we know today, which hit almost $2 billion in profits in 2013. The takeaway here? When you see an area where customers’ needs aren’t being served, don’t rely on others to solve the problem — build your own solution.
2. If You’re Going to Be Ambitious, Don’t Keep It Small
Elon Musk: CEO, SpaceX, Tesla Motors
Musk had always been good with computers – at the age of 12, he wrote and sold a code for a video game called Blastar for $500. After enrolling in a PhD program at Stanford, he left after just two days to focus on Zip2, a software company that he founded and sold for $307 million in 1999. He launched X.com a few months later, and it was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. But coding was just the spark plug for Musk’s far grander ambitions – his payouts from Zip2 and X.com helped fund SpaceX, a company that builds space lauch vehicles. He hopes to use SpaceX to eventually colonize Mars, because why should ambition be limited to life on Earth?
3. Never Stop Listening and Learning from Mentors
Indra Nooyi: CEO, PepsiCo
Nooyi got her M.B.A. at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, one of only two schools in the country to offer the degree at the time. She then moved to Johnson & Johnson’s Bombay office, where she was assigned the difficult task of marketing Stayfree sanitary napkins — no easy feat, given that it was illegal to advertise feminine protection products in India. Her mentors told her that if she wanted to rise in management, she needed to deepen her knowledge, so she went to Yale’s Graduate School of Management in 1978. After stints at BCG and Motorola, she was offered chief strategist positions at both General Electric and PepsiCo. Struggling to choose, she valued PepsiCo CEO Wayne Calloway’s promise that, “I would make PepsiCo a special place for you.” After she won the CEO job in 2006, she requested that her chief competition for the role not only stay at the company, but also be paid a salary equal to hers. The takeaway? Listen to trusted mentors and advisors, and never assume that they no longer have anything to teach you.
4. Always Look for Opportunities to Reinvent
Jeff Bezos: CEO, Amazon
Bezos demonstrated a knack for reimagining products at an early age. As a toddler, he attempted to dismantle his crib. In junior high, he built an electric alarm to keep his brother and sister out of his room. After graduating from college with a computer science degree, he was hired at a New York hedge fund to analyze trading data. It was there that he realized the untapped commercial potential of the Internet. He quit his job and moved to Seattle, where he opened Amazon.com in his two-bedroom house in 1995. The home office had extension cords running to the garage and three Sun Microstations fashioned out of Home Depot doors. Bezos was determined to invent “the world’s most customer-centric company” online, adding features like one-click shopping, customer reviews, and e-mail order verification. Amazon is now the world’s top online retailer, with over $74 billion in net sales in 2013. Much of Bezos’ success stems from his continuous appetite for reinventing his company, even now that it’s become one of the most successful in the world.
5. Don’t Be Timid about Showcasing Your Talents
Ursula Burns: CEO, Xerox
Burns grew up in a Lower East Side housing project. At Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, she felt like “an oddity in a sea of predominantly white males.” After graduating in 1980, she took a job at Xerox, and moved up to an executive assistant position. It was still a world in which “black women CEOs were unimaginable,” but, her brains, along with what her coworkers called a “no-nonsense New York attitude”, helped her secure a senior vice president position in 2000. “I know I’m smart and have opinions worth being heard,” she told the New York Times in 2003. Her straightforwardness helped secure the Xerox board’s decision to promote her to the highest level. In 2009, she became the first African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Had she stayed quiet and and feared speaking out about her own abilities, they may not have been recognized.
6. Value practicality, and always pay attention to detail
Warren Buffett: CEO, Berkshire Hathaway
Much of Buffett’s early success was thanks to his curious mind and meticulous attention to the fine print. He bought his first stock when he was 11. His first tax return, which he filed as a paperboy at age 13, claimed a $35 deduction on the use of his watch and bicycle. By age 20, he had saved close to $100,000 — and this was before he’d ever had a formal job. In 1961, he was appointed to the Sanborn company board after dissecting company reports and pointing out a critical fault in stock pricing. Even today, one of the wealthiest and most successful men in business keeps principled pragmatism as one of his core values, both personally and professionally. Despite his $67 billion net worth, Buffett still lives in the same house that he bought in 1957 for $31,500.